An intimate portrait of an iconic poet

Ferial J. Ghazoul, Tuesday 30 Nov 2021

Samia Mehrez, Ibrahim Naji: Ziyara Hamima Taakharat Kathiran (Ibrahim Naji: A Very Belated Intimate Visit). Cairo:Dar Al-Shorouk, 2021


Mehrez’s book about an eminent modern Egyptian poet is difficult to classify: it is a genre-bending text that brings together biography, autobiography, cultural history, translation studies, textual criticism, and archival documents — all overlapping and yet presented in an accessible style. The author calls onconversations with her mother, son, and kin as well as critics to construct an intimate portrait of hermaternal grandfather, whom she never met — the iconic poet Ibrahim Naji (1898-1953). The accessibility of the book camouflages the critical brilliance which makes it a pioneering work of multi-faceted literary scholarship.

The text opens with a visit of Gamal Al-Ghitani to Samia Mehrez in Cairo when she was involved in writing a dissertation in an American university on modern Arabic fiction focusing on Ghitani. Discovering through the portrait on the wall, that  Mehrez is the granddaughter of Naji, Ghitani comments on how she looks very much like her grandfather. This comment was not welcomed by the PhD candidate Samia, as she did not think she resembled her grandfather physically or otherwise. At the very end of her book, and having undertaken a journey into her grandfather’s life and works — thanks to the archival material her maternal aunt had gifted her with — she came to proudly see the resemblance that annoyed her in the opening of the book.

As a school girl, the author was exposed to her grandfather’s poetry since it was assigned in Arabic classes. She takes this starting point to show how Arabic poetry has been taught and continues to be taught with emphasis on rote learning rather than artistic appreciation. This creates an inevitable discontent, if not dislike, with one’s own literary heritage. She contrasts it with the way she read and discussed English literature and poetry and how she was able to relate to Western canonical works and even identify with characters in Elizabethan drama she encountered in her studies.

One can sum up the journey in the book as a need not only to connect with an ancestor, but also to find the authentic Ibrahim Naji. In order to accomplish such an endeavour, Mehrez had to separate Naji the man from the way he has been covered (up) by family and critics. Naji has been viewed as a romantic poet exhibiting emotional delicatesse. Identifying his muse and the addressee of his love poetry had engaged critics — often following wrong paths—while his family chose silence over such concerns. Furthermore, Naji has been dubbed as a poet while rarely acknowledging his other writings, including short stories and a novel. Though known as a doctor poet, no one has bothered to point to his scientific writing on medical guidelines for the layperson, and to his forays into psychology, sociology, and literary criticism. In fact, Naji—as a practicing doctor and a talented poet with limitless intellectual curiosity—had been encyclopedic in terms of interest. Rather than viewing him as a Renaissance man who mastered several languages and explored new trends in the humanities and social sciences, he has been reduced to only one aspect of his rich life, that of a poet. Mehrez is out to show a wholesome picture of her grandfather. She calls on the French cultural critic, Pierre Bourdieu, to explain cultural fields and cultural capital in relation to Naji. She shows how the translations of literary works by Naji — whether Baudelaire’s Fleurs dumal, or Shakespeare’s Sonnets — attest to his poetic sensibility as well as to his broad knowledge that goes beyond a single professional field.

Mehrez zooms on the presence of Shakespeare in the corpus of Naji to discuss various perspectives related to translation studies as well as reception aesthetics. As the director of Translation Studies Center at the American University in Cairo for more than a decade, she explains the intricacies of poetic translation by presenting the different renderings of Sonnet 55 that opens with “Not marble nor the gilded monuments . . .”. The sonnet is then presented in Arabic translation by different pens, allowing the readers to engage in what she calls “the game of comparison”. She cites the translations of this Sonnet by Jabra Jabra, Sargon Boulus, Abdul-Wahid Lu‘lua, and the translation of her students in colloquial Egyptian Arabic in the context of a seminar she taught. Avoiding jargon and specialised idioms, Mehrez invites her readers to partake in evaluating translations of the Sonnet and leave the judgment on preference to her audience.

Naji was particularly taken by Hamlet, encountered first when he was a student in secondary school, and the fascination continued until much later. Naji could see the Oedipus complex in the Danish prince as well as locating the text in the stressful trajectory of Shakespeare’s life. Mehrez, in turn, sees the vulnerability of her grandfather paralleling that of Hamlet and Shakespeare. Yet when she discusses the draft of that chapter with her son Nadim, he questions, in a postcolonial vein, the veneration of Shakespeare, pointing the role of Shakespearean studies in anchoring imperial culture. Mehrez takes this conversation as a starting point to show the cultural reception of the English bard by her grandfather, herself, and her son. The reader learns not only about the three attitudes towards Shakespeare but how critical history is propelled.